The Natural History of the Rich: A Field Guide
In his quirky and stylish foray into lifestyles of the megabucks set, Smithsonian contributor Richard Conniff offers to transport us "into the world of the rich as if we were anthropologists making the first visit among the tree-dwelling Kombai tribe of Irian Jaya [New Guinea] or a primatologist among the squirrel monkeys." Conniff’s research for The Natural History of the Rich: A Field Guide spanned the academic (delving into such journals as Ethology and Sociobiology and Behavioural Ecology) and the absurd (exploring the Los Angeles habitat of the very wealthy from behind the wheel of a $150,000 Ferrari F 355 Spider convertible, deep-cover camouflage rented by the author).
The resulting survey of the super-rich, from 19th-century financier Baron James de Rothschild and 20th-century industrialist Armand Hammer to the likes of Larry Ellison (founder of software giant Oracle) and media magnate Ted Turner, uncovers close correspondences to the behaviors Conniff has observed for Smithsonian, reporting on creatures from the antelope to the silverback gorilla. "As a natural history writer," he says, "I’ve always assumed that all individual animals, from the Australian bulldog ant on up to Rupert Murdoch, conform, more or less, to the rules of their species. They fit into basic patterns of physiology, territoriality, social hierarchy, reproductive behavior, parental care, and so on, and the ones that don’t fit generally get eaten."
Conniff also covers jet-set dream houses and ultimate travel destinations for Architectural Digest, and his various assignments for them and for us have taken him from a nightclub in Monaco to the Peruvian Amazon and from Blenheim Palace (the ancestral seat of the Churchills) to Botswana’s Okavango Delta. "It was a toss-up which of these worlds was more perilous and, traveling between the two, it was impossible to avoid seeing certain similarities," he writes about his inspiration for the book.
The ensuing analogies make for a literate, gossipy and altogether engaging romp. "While some of the behaviors of the rich and fashionable would doubtless send the average primate brachiating desperately for the nearest exit, others would doubtless be deeply familiar," Conniff writes. For example: whether in the wild or across a crowded room, primates draw from the same behavioral well. "There’s something ancient going on when fashionable partygoers greet one another by pooching out their mouths, parting their lips with a moist clicking or chirping sound, and saying mwah-mwah into the air beside one another’s ears," Conniff observes. For humans as well as gorillas, the gesture mimics grooming behavior, appeases and disarms possible rivals and sometimes functions as a prelude to outbursts of aggression. Suddenly, an air kiss at a charity ball assumes a hitherto unimagined complexity.
And what might a male gorilla and Ted Turner have in common? A penchant, it appears, for a form of self-assertion known to animal behaviorists as "prosocial dominance." In September of 1997, Turner came up with a truly inspired, at least as Conniff sees it, variation on one-upmanship: "Any damned fool can compete at the standard Darwinian game of gathering market share and piling up resources. But by giving away $1 billion to the United Nations, Turner could lay claim to the largest single act of charity by a living person in history." What this really amounted to was a "bid for status, as plain as the chest-thumping of rival silverback gorillas."
Can the natural world, too, explain the thrill-seeking escapades of multimillionaire Steve Fossett? (After several failed attempts, Fossett managed the first solo circumnavigation of the globe in a hot air balloon last year.) "What was he doing falling out of the sky in a broken balloon?" Conniff asks, referring to an earlier, failed effort. The answer? Engaging in display behavior similar to the broad-tailed hummingbird’s, "one of the flashiest seasonal residents of the Aspen [Colorado] area." Not content to dazzle his rivals and potential mates with metallic green feathers and a bright red throat patch, the male hummingbird embellishes his image with elaborate aerial stunt work. Conniff describes the bird "shooting sixty feet straight up in the air and back down again in a gaudy power dive, which he may repeat forty-five times an hour, his wingtips giving off a metallic trill urgent as a kid’s bicycle bell." In the end, Conniff theorizes, it’s all about showing off, even if the urge to display is subconscious. "When the rich say they don’t need to impress anybody, they usually mean only that they have drastically narrowed down the list of people they are interested in impressing. Even when they think they have narrowed it down only to themselves, they are often still proving things to the ghosts of unloving fathers or of old teachers who thought they’d never make it."
With Conniff as our guide, we traverse behaviors ordained by evolution: dominance seeking, kin selection, reciprocal altruism and an appropriation of status symbols, an undertaking that may involve variations on scent marking (perfume wearing, for instance) and hoarding (art collecting, among other activities). We encounter opossums and peacocks, dung beetles and bowerbirds, European moles and vervet monkeys. And along the way—remaining, as Conniff suggests, "alert to what is lovely, poignant and also ludicrous about their lives"—that cultural subspecies identified by Conniff as Homo sapiens pecuniosus begins to seem a bit more, well, downright human. Gradually, the very rich, while different from you and me, do appear grounded in the behaviors that define our species and the animal kingdom in general. Who knew that pulling one’s closely pressed nose away from the palace window to peer instead through the lenses of Conniff’s field binoculars could provide such amusing insight?
Reviewer Victoria Dawson is a freelancer based in Washington, D.C.